The Sunday Magazine

'For them, it was just politics and it was a game': Anita Hill

After Christine Blasey Ford testified that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, we revisit Michael Enright’s 2006 interview with Anita Hill.

In 2006, Hill spoke to CBC Radio about testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee

More than 25 years after law professor Anita Hill appeared before a Senate committee to testify that she was sexually harassed by her boss, Clarence Thomas — now a U.S. Supreme Court judge — history is repeating itself. (John Duricka/Associated Press)

Originally published on September 28, 2018.

In 1991, the world watched as Anita Hill testified on live television that her former boss Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.

Twenty-seven years later, at another Supreme Court judge confirmation hearing, the world watched again. This time, Christine Blasey Ford testified that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school.

As the spectacle unfolded, echoes of the past rang loud. For many, Hill's experience was both a painful, enraging memory and a rallying cry.

In 2006, The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright spoke to Hill, a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University.

Here are some highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.

I'm wondering whether we're more open about questions of sexual harassment today?

I think we are more open. And I do think that the conversation about sexual harassment has really gone beyond some of the myths and stereotypes that we were dealing with in 1991. I don't believe, for example, that people honestly believe that only bad women are sexually harassed.

That was one of the myths that prevailed during the hearings in 1991. I think we have gotten beyond some things like that.

I felt that my experience was relevant to ... Clarence Thomas's right to sit on the court.- Anita Hill

However, I think that there is still a tendency to deny the harassment if the person who is being accused is a powerful person.

You were reluctant to testify [at first]. What was it that finally moved you to put yourself in the centre of the whirlwind?

I think it was a number of factors. The first was that I do care very deeply about the law. I care that the people who are interpreting it are really examples of people who I respect, whose interpretations of the law I respect in my profession as a lawyer.

I wanted to really believe that the Supreme Court was a place where individuals who sat on the bench had integrity; that they really were people that we should have confidence in; that we should have confidence in the process that brought them to those positions.

Hill decided to testify because she wanted to "believe that the Supreme Court was a place where individuals who sat on the bench had integrity," she told Michael Enright in 2006. (Jennifer Law/AFP/Getty Images)

So ... with that in mind, I couldn't not participate. I couldn't say no if I felt I had something to contribute.

The other reason was that I felt that my experience was relevant to ... Clarence Thomas's right to sit on the court.

You were vilified, though, in some quarters as a sort of sex-crazed black woman who was out to get this guy.

There were so many myths in operation during the hearings.

One of them is that anybody who accuses a man — a powerful man, in particular — of sexual misconduct is either someone who is crazy, someone who is overly ambitious and is simply trying to use this to get ahead, or someone who has been scorned, and therefore they're using this as a vendetta.

There were all these things ... that were used against me by my detractors without any basis in fact at all.

[Arlen Specter] said we've learned a lot since those hearings, so why don't we just leave it at that.- Anita Hill

The idea that I had waited for 10 years to wage some vendetta against this individual and that I was some crazy person was just ridiculous.

I just want to talk about the atmosphere in the hearings for a moment ... The Senate Judiciary Committee, people like Orrin Hatch [and] Arlen Specter, were treating you like a hostile witness in some kind of prosecution.

That is another interesting aspect of the whole setting. People today say to me, "I saw your testimony in the Clarence Thomas trial."

One of the reasons they describe it as a trial, as opposed to a hearing about his qualifications, is that I was treated as though I were being cross-examined by a trial attorney.

Arlen Specter, in particular, took on that role as a former prosecutor. He saw that as an appropriate role to to adopt in that setting. [But] it was completely inappropriate. None of the other witnesses who had testified either in favour of or against the nominee had been treated in that way.

I think it misled the American public about the role that a Senate Judiciary Committee is supposed to be playing in those confirmation hearings. It certainly misled them about what I was trying to do.

President George H. W. Bush meets with then-nominee Clarence Thomas in October 1991. Hill was accused of playing politics by coming forward, but said, "I felt that what I had to say really went to the integrity of the position, and not to any of the political leanings of either George Bush, who had nominated Clarence Thomas, or Clarence Thomas himself." (AFP/Getty Images)

Did any of them, in the subsequent 15 years, ever apologize?

I ran into Arlen Specter by chance in Oklahoma, in an airport recently, and he said something to me about working with him on some project. We didn't really have a long conversation. We were both getting on a plane or going in different directions.

It was the first time I had seen him. I'm not sure what I was expecting. I don't know if I expected an apology.

He said we've learned a lot since those hearings, so why don't we just leave it at that.

They saw this as a Washington political drama.- Anita Hill

This is just another one of those incidents where [the senators] were playing politics.

For them, it was just politics and it was a game. For me, it was really about changing my entire life.

But they didn't see me as an individual out there who was a citizen or a constituent. They saw me as another political actor.

That's how they treated me, and that's how they treated the whole episode. They didn't see this as something that had to do with women and their experiences in their lives and what goes on in the workplace.

They saw this as a Washington political drama.

Had you known what you were going to go through, would you have gone through it? Was it enough for you that you knew you were telling the truth?

Yes. Every day.

This was an important thing for the committee to know and to understand. As it turns out, it was an important thing for society to know.

I knew that I was telling the truth, and that's all that I could do.- Anita Hill

Now when you ask if I have regrets, at this point, I'm saying this with 15 years of hindsight. But even at the time, I was motivated by the fact that I had something to contribute to this process — that my life mattered, that my experiences mattered. I knew that I was telling the truth, and that's all that I could do.

I couldn't control what the consequences might be, but I could control what I did and what I said. I was determined every day to do that.

That got harder and harder some days. But I tried to do it with all the integrity that I could muster on any given day.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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